Why we Conservatives must lose our perceived hostility to immigration - and get rid of the cap on immigrant numbers

The UK runs a real risk of losing its hard-won standing as a country that welcomes trade, investment and talent from around the world
  • @markfieldmp

This nation’s economic future depends on our taking the right approach towards those who wish to work, study and contribute here.

Flexibility in a country’s immigration system is now part and parcel of being an engaged member of the global economy. International businesses and business people, not to mention academics, expect to be able to move with relative ease between open, dynamic and flexible global cities - just as many Britons would anticipate being able to work in Hong Kong, New York, Shanghai or Mumbai for a spell. Those countries which restrict this movement risk economic isolation in this age of globalisation.        

Similarly, students who come to Britain even for a year or two become ambassadors for the UK for the rest of their lives. These are often the very people returning home to set up successful businesses or to play a leading role in public life. Their affiliation with and affection for Britain is a future asset we should not throw away.

Naturally, we need to make sure that those who come to live in our country come to benefit Britain, not to sign up for British benefits. We must be mindful of the need to use our migration system to boost the competitiveness of British companies, not undermine the job prospects of lower skilled British workers. And we need to be much more serious about making integration work, for every generation and every community in our country.

All of that is what managed migration should mean. Neither an absence of controls, nor a raised drawbridge. Just sensible, rational, planned policy. 

Ducking the debate

For years our nation’s politicians ducked honest discussion on immigration. Public resentment and anger fast filled the policy vacuum. As that resentment has boiled over in recent years, so the political pendulum has swung erratically the other way. The rumbling threat of UKIP has only stiffened the resolve of mainstream parties to keep tough talk on immigration firmly on the front pages. In such a febrile atmosphere it has become almost impossible to have the rational debate we need. That is why we have decided to set up a new group, Conservatives for Managed Migration, to promote a calm, reasoned discussion about immigration both within and beyond the Conservative Party.

It is a crucial debate for two reasons. First, the current immigration crackdown has serious implications for our nation and our economy. A cap on numbers is not only undeliverable but leads to an unhealthy focus on headline figures that is disconnected from reality. Since the government has precious few tools at its disposal to stem the tide of EU nationals, refugees and asylum seekers, efforts to decrease numbers inevitably rest on keeping out many of the most desirable types of non-EU migrant – talented entrepreneurs, academics and business people. When government fails to meet its own targets, voter distrust is only reinforced.

Time and again in my constituency work businesses and globally-competitive universities tell me of the barriers they face in securing entry to Britain for the people we should be welcoming.

There is no cap on international student places, but the government’s explicit objective has been to reduce their number as a means of bringing net migration to under 100,000 by the next election. The treatment of student and post-study work visas has now become a cause of regular complaint amongst top universities in my constituency with prospective overseas academic staff now preferring to move to the US and Australia.

These complaints are echoed by senior business people fed up with the hoops that top flight non-EU nationals are having to jump through. Either to come here or to stay for any length of time. Complex, lengthy and costly visa processes, interminable queues at our borders, and long journeys to get approvals at far-flung overseas embassies all cause additional headaches. It is a cliché that a reputation takes years to build but can be lost in an instant. However, the UK runs a real risk of losing its hard-won standing as a country that welcomes trade, investment and talent from around the world at a time when we most need international expertise and capital.


Second, the relentless focus on immigration by the Conservative Party seems to the outsider to border on near-obsession. The implicit message to the electorate is that my Party is fundamentally hostile to those who were not born here. Indeed that the presence of settled migrant communities has been an historical mistake. This in spite of the fact that many immigrants to Britain demonstrate just the kind of enterprise and family values that should make them natural Tory voters.

In the General Elections of 2001 and 2005, William Hague and Michael Howard respectively made a crackdown on immigration the centrepiece of the Tory campaign.  At least then we cornered the market as the only Party taking a hard line on migrant numbers. That is not going to be the case when we go to the polls during the next year.  In short, we cannot out-UKIP UKIP on immigration. Especially as we are not going to match their offer of withdrawal from the EU.

Hostile to immigrants?

The other harsh electoral truth which the Party must face is that the number of immigrants on the electoral roll gets markedly bigger year by year. What is the Conservative message to these voters? One of the most alarming statistics I have read in recent weeks, is that Labour are outpolling the Tories three to one among Polish nationals voting here in the EU elections. It is hard to believe that this is unrelated to perceived Conservative hostility towards both immigrants and the European Union.  

My Party has always thrived most when it has adapted to or led change in Britain.  For all of my concern about the raw demographic statistics, we must remember that those who have or will come to our shores are not numbers - they are people.  People who are hardly going to embrace our Party us if we rarely seen to embrace them.

It is now time to move on from the Dutch auction that takes place at election time over immigration. It serves none of us well as politicians, and is certainly not in the interests of our nation as a whole.   

The Government has made some very sensible and pragmatic improvements to our migration system. Abuses have been cracked down on - bogus colleges, sham marriages, health tourists – and the Home Office is stopping the endless cycle of legal appeals for rejected applications. The government has also been striving to address some of the so-called ‘pull’ factors which have made Britain such an appealing destination for those exploiting our generous health and benefits systems. Ministers must be congratulated for all those measures, which were long, long overdue.

Headline numbers

But we should acknowledge that there is a fundamental problem with having a net migration policy that targets headline numbers alone. Few voters believe we can deliver on it. Few businesses regard it as practical. It risks sending the wrong signals about our openness to the world. Ironically, the objective also makes us victims of our own success – the more our economy outperforms those of our European neighbours, so that more people want to come here and fewer leave, the more we are apparently “failing” to deliver a key policy.

The government has a positive story to tell in so many critical areas - on the economy….on education…on welfare. With the immigration cap not matching that success, it should no longer form a key plank of our electoral offering.

So the group we launch today – Conservatives for Managed Migration – will aim to rebalance the national debate on this key issue. We must avoid hysterical reactions to the problems of the last decade, when migration did indeed drift out of control. Neither should we be aiming to recreate a Britain as it was in the 1950s. We must and we shall make the positive case for welcoming those who can make our country greater, and for putting in place realistic systems that can regain business and public trust. We believe that in doing so we can make both our nation, and our Party, stronger.

This is an excerpt from a speech given today by Mark Field MP.